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WorkforceRx Live Book Launch: Leveling the Slope of Unconscious Bias

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx Live Book Launch: Leveling the Slope of Unconscious Bias


Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health and host of the show, is also author of the new best-selling book, WorkforceRx: Agile and Inclusive Strategies for Employers, Educators and Workers in Unsettled Times. In this episode, Van welcomes leading workforce and economic development experts to discuss the strategies and insights from Chapters Seven and Eight that resonated most with them. Check out their lively discussion about how to stop pitting diversity against workforce quality; integrating recruitment, screening and training; making upskilling the new norm; taking a “credential-as-you-go” approach and much more from this powerful new playbook for the future of work. 

Joining Van are: Holly Zanville, Co-Director of Program on Skills, Credentials and Workforce Policy at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy; John Brauer, Executive Director for Workforce & Economic Development at the California Labor Federation; Shannon Lucas and Tracey Lovejoy, Co-Chief Executive Officers of Catalyst Constellation; Paul Granillo, President & CEO, Inland Empire Economic Partnership; Linda Wah, Trustee, Pasadena City College; Gustavo Herrera, CEO of Arts for LA.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’m so delighted to have your company today at this celebratory event. It is really momentous to have all of you here — my colleagues and friends who are guest panelists today — as well as those who are in the audience listening. Now, let me go ahead and transition into the book itself, WorkforceRx: Agile and Inclusive Strategies for Employers, Educators and Workers in Unsettled Times.

Some folks ask me why have I written this book and why this book now? The answer is the numbers: 8.4 million unemployed, and 10 million job openings. The pandemic has really wreaked havoc on our labor market, which already was in turmoil beforehand. Workers can’t find jobs and employers can’t find workers. We need our nation to have all our engines revving to connect people with the right skills for the right jobs, and there’s no more perfect time to get these workforce development strategies and these proven playbooks out since we do not need to start from scratch, and we can be working together in collaborative ways to build upon each other’s good works.

This is a moment in time when I’ll borrow a phrase from my former colleagues, where you don’t want to “post and pray” that there’s a talent pool on the other end. There are many, many strategies that are proven that can be employed in order to ensure that you have the talent pool when you make that job posting.

I’ve invited very distinguished colleagues and longtime friends to join me today to deep dive into Chapters Seven and Eight. Before I introduce them, I just wanted to share that I’ve asked them to do an icebreaker, which is to share what keyword would they use to find this book if they were on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or Google? And then to answer this question: what insight, story or strategy resonated the most with you, and why?

Let me introduce all of our guests. Holly Zanville has had a very long career across a number of foundations and other organizations just driving a rethinking about higher education and credentials. She’s quite the force right now, helping us rethink stackable credentials and micro-credentials. She’s really driving that set of conversations in the country and even bringing in practices from other countries so that the U.S. can learn how it can work. So, thank you, Holly, for being here.

John Brauer is with the California Labor Federation as executive director for Workforce and Economic Development. What I’ve always appreciated with John is how courageous he is. When we were doing the Strong Workforce program, he joined me in conversation with our Faculty Senate to really have a critical, courageous conversation about what it means to prepare students with critical thinking which — amongst all the essential and soft skills — manifests in very different ways.

Shannon Lucas and Tracy Lovejoy are co-founders and co-CEOs of Catalyst Constellations. I have to give them credit for the current role that I have because when I stepped-off from the State Chancellor’s Office, they created a safe space for me to be able to think through where I could have the next impact and be able to continue paying forward the opportunity that I had. So, thank you, Shannon and Tracy, for joining me.

Paul Granillo is very unassuming. He has being a priest in his background before turning to economic development and being a civic steward. He heads up the Inland Empire Economic Partnership and has really just transformed a region that used to live in the shadows of Los Angeles. I’m so proud that the Inland Empire is now winning grants and winning over industries, and it is thanks to Paul’s ability to build the ecosystem of the willing.

Linda Wah was a big supporter of the work that we were doing at the California Community Colleges, and she sat as a trustee on the trustee organization. I have always appreciated that Linda was thoughtful and was open-minded about the work we were doing and was an ambassador of our work with the trustee organization and also represented us on the Strong Workforce Program.

And then, Gustavo Herrera. He’s now with Arts for LA as its CEO. I met him when he was with a group called The Young Invincibles, which was a policy organization advocating for the interest of the younger folks in our population and their desire to have economic opportunity. So, Gustavo and I share common interests and common values in creating opportunities, no matter what role we play.

So with that, let me turn the floor over to Holly Zanville, Co-Director of the Program on Skills, Credentials and Workforce Policy at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

Holly Zanville: Thanks so much, Van. And you know me well enough to know that I’m not going to come up with just one word! There are four words that jumped out to me in your book that are really staying with me. And those are: micro-credentials, risk, agility, and diversity. Because of the roles that I play in the credentialing world, I want to speak to those and why I think this book is really so important to many of these developments.

Some of the insights in Chapter Eight, especially, are important: that digital badging, interoperable learner records and micro-credentials are really key strategies to address the shortened shelf life of skills and knowledge. That’s just such an apt way to lay those three out. These strategies are truly important parts of the prescription — the Rx — for a redesigned 21st-century workforce development system. I really like that Van highlighted the important contributions that a “credential-as-you-go” approach can make.

This is where I focus so much of my work as co-lead of this new national initiative. Since Van’s book actually went to print — I don’t know that Van even knows this — we’ve made great progress in moving this effort forward with credential-as-you-go working to transform the pretty antiquated U.S. degree-centric system to an incremental system that incorporates shorter valuable learning units that can be credentialed through digital badges, non-credit certificates, or skills courses bridged to credit paths and other types of micro-credentials.

Unfortunately, for decades, about half of college enrolled students have dropped or stopped out, resulting in some thirty-eight million Americans joining the “no credential club” that nobody really wants to join. They left college, but they received no credentials for their learning. I have to ask all of us this question: are we really to conclude that these millions of students — many of whom are low-income and students of color — did not learn anything valuable enough to be credentialed because they did not complete their associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees? Reason tells us this just cannot be true.

So, with this pretty horrible statistic driving us, we’re on the road to fast acceleration, since credential-as-you-go was recently awarded a Federal Institute of Education Sciences Grant. We’re working now with the National Partnership of State Systems of Higher Education, colleges and universities, employers, accreditation agencies, think tanks, and many others in an approach that is so in line with Van’s insights about the importance of building an ecosystem of willing partners to provide the agility she calls for — the ability to move quickly and easily in problem-solving actions during unsettled times.

Our approach of rapid prototyping is really occurring in three state systems of higher education — Colorado, North Carolina and New York — and we think that they’re going to help us develop a blueprint to integrate incremental credentials such as short-term certificates, industry certifications, digital badges, and micro-credentials for all learners into the traditional education system. We believe this will result in a fairer, more equitable system for all learners.

Well, these are exactly the kinds of approaches Van is describing as part of the agile and inclusive strategies that employers, educators, and workers need in the unsettled times we’re facing. So, the word “transformation,” Van…it’s such a risky endeavor as you aptly point out. But you wisely counsel that risk is a necessary four-letter word we must use and enact to survive unsettled times. So, congratulations on such a super job.

Van: Thank you so much, Holly, and congratulations to you on the momentum on credential as you go. It’s so important that there are leaders driving experimentation and understanding in the frameworks so that the broader community across the country can adopt it. Thank you, Holly. Next, we have John Brauer, Executive Director for Workforce & Economic Development at the California Labor Federation.

John Brauer: Good afternoon, and good morning, depending on where you are in the world. I guess my word — I have one of the same ones as Holly — which is that micro-credential, micro-badging, were words to look at. I am in the state of California and we are thinking about organized labor and our representation of home care workers in California. One of the things that we’ve been looking at is that California has a demand for almost 600,000 home care workers in the future — many of whom are immigrants, low-wage workers, limited English, or English language learners. We really are looking at the ideas that Van had in the book around the ability to both have an important part of our California workforce getting credentialing and using technology, but then also providing better health care for their family members and other community members that they serve in their jobs.

So, that was the one that really struck me, Van. I think micro-credentialing has a really big future, and also its relationship to a lot of existing workforce systems like apprenticeship that have utilized a standard basic set of curriculum. And then within that, look at embedding credentials and badges already in California to make them more adaptable and responsive, too. So, thank you for including me today.

Van: Thank you so much, John. I appreciate you facilitating the dialogue. If it’s 600,000 home care workers needed in California, you know that that number is very big at the national level so any solutions developed anywhere can be shared and exported. Wonderful. All right, we have Shannon Lucas, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Catalyst Constellation.

Shannon Lucas: I have to start with the words master catalyst because this is why we have Van and the book, because she is a master catalyst. A lot of the words that make a catalyst so powerful she has in the book, like collaboration and systems approach, and I’ll talk more about those.

I’m going to cheat a little bit because the story that I really want to talk about from Van’s book is actually in Chapter Two, but I picked it because it so clearly demonstrated why we hold Van up as an example of how to have those expert skills and be that master catalyst. I’m going to call out four, and I’ll talk about them quickly.

She starts with experimentation and adaptation. She goes on a listening tour and she includes a diverse set of stakeholders. She doesn’t just find shared value, she creates shared value — which is really a next-level skill for change agents — and she approaches everything from a systems approach. And so, the story in Chapter Two is how she got this highly competitive and somewhat dysfunctional statewide ecosystem of community colleges to actually transform into a highly networked and collaborative system that really benefited everybody and was much more efficient. She did this by starting, when she got into the vice chancellor’s role, with a learning journey, which is where we know change agents need to start.

I love the John Kotter quote that she called out: “While hierarchy is as important as it always has been for optimizing work, the network is where big change happens.” She very intentionally tapped into this group of formal and informal leaders who, importantly, had high trust within the community but could also think beyond their own parochial needs which made them amazing collaborators. Then, Van held the space for them to allow them to express their challenges and frustrations so that she could really get to the bottom of what was actually going on.

She didn’t find the shared value just from that. She took that and she created it, and she found this really great lever that was available to her in the system, which was the grants. Her approach was pooling the grants and making the community colleges actually collaborate. In the first grant round, sixty percent from one region had to collaborate and in the next round, one hundred percent of them had to collaborate to get access to these funds, and they did it, and it worked.

She also used a tool called “breadcrumbing” where people were sort of following the money, and at the end of that journey, they found this highly-collaborative, highly-networked regional ecosystem that didn’t exist before. So, the final point is, it’s about systems change. It’s not about going in on one small problem, because if you don’t unpack the whole system and peel the onion, as she talks about, you’re not going to get to that shared value.

She didn’t just transform one community college or even one region. She transformed one of the world’s largest community college systems, and they effectively became this innovative and collaborative ecosystem where they discovered themselves solving much more complex problems in novel ways together than they could do alone.

So, if anyone wants to learn how to do system change — regardless of your focus — Van’s book has incredible tools for you. Thank you for bringing this into the world, Van.

Van: Well, thank you so much, Shannon, for just talking about it from a frame of a learning journey. I think it’s scary to go on a learning journey and hear what people have to say and then you feel beholden to, “Now, what do I do with it?” It’s so wonderful for you to point to that chapter because it’s important for all leaders to go through that in order to come up with a good design that can work for all. So now, let me invite Tracy Lovejoy, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Catalyst Constellation.

Tracy Lovejoy: Thank you so much for having us, Van. It is a great honor to get to wax poetic about the greatness of this book. I’ll echo some of the things that Shannon was talking about. If I was going to put together a keyword list, of course “catalyst” is at the top of the list. I’m thrilled that is where people can find out more about what you’re doing here. But the other thing I would point to in terms of a term that really resonates and will stick with me, is the three-legged stool that you talk about throughout the book.

For me, in my time of having known you, your ability to identify the real problem is so important to actually bringing in sustained and lasting, and meaningful change. We see this not only in the frame of the book — how every chapter is set up as a challenge and solution as opposed to just kind of naming it — but in the scientific inquiry in which you really stop and talk to people, look at the systems and understand that there are multiple actors.  That is so important to help people tackle all the challenges that we face today.

You help us look at something that can feel almost impossible to look at systemically. You understand why it’s easy for most actors thinking about workforce to do it locally, to do it within their organizational context, and you show us what that looks like and what the results are versus what happens when you consider that broader context. In this case, you’re talking about specific organizations in the three-legged stool, but I like that as an analogy, period, for problem solvers.

So, in Chapter Seven — because you’re talking about the slope of unconscious bias — you point out that in cases where community colleges are less funded, the assumption of people dropping in and looking at the surface level is that the problem is a lack of dollars. As you stopped and spoke to people and then you looked at the system, what you saw is it wasn’t just the lack of dollars, that it’s actually the lack of people to not only go after the dollars but then to leverage the money once it comes in.

As you looked at what happened in other systems where that wasn’t the case, you created a pathway to tie the schools together that would allow everybody not to just help where there was one problem, but solve the needs of others and see the world from their perspective, too. And that’s what true systems thinking can do. I so appreciate a book that helps us all be better problem-solvers and really helps us think through this problem and bring forward meaningful and lasting change. So, deep gratitude, Van.

Van: Thank you so much. It reminds me of the story about a particular college that was in a rural area — and as you know, many rural areas have less capacity from a people infrastructure standpoint. As a state, we couldn’t even give free money to that college because they had no people on the ground to do the work. By pairing them with a neighboring college that was bigger with better resources, they began to then build capabilities and learn the ropes of how to do this work. All right, very good. Paul Granillo, President & CEO, Inland Empire Economic Partnership.

Paul Granillo: Happy to be here. So, I read all my pages, and I just want to congratulate you, Van. As I read through the book, I was also putting together a TV stand, and it dawned on me that this book is like the instructions that I was using to put together that TV stand. I think if practitioners use it like that, they’re going to be able to build some pretty spectacular systems and get some really good outcomes.

So, what stuck out to me in Chapter Eight was the phrase “rate of change” and then I’m going to sneak over into Chapter Nine for the other one, which is “measuring what counts.” I’m the regional guy, right? Van, you call out many of our friends and partners in different regions of the State of California and the work that they do. I appreciate that you know, because you worked with us, that California is an economy of regions and each region is unique. So, if we’re going to talk about economic development or we’re going to talk about workforce, we need to reflect on the reality of that region.

From the perspective of the Inland Empire, we have 4.6 million people — which is bigger than twenty-four states in the country — and we continue to grow. But one of our major issues is that among regions in the country with over one million people, we have the lowest baccalaureate attainment rate. Of the 4.6 million people, only twenty-one percent have baccalaureate degrees. We have the fifth-largest Latino population in the nation — 2.3 million people — and that baccalaureate attainment rate is at nine percent.

And so, this question about how do we train people for the jobs that are currently here and going to be here is incredibly important. In our region, the blue-collar jobs in healthcare are an incredible economic driver. In manufacturing and the supply chain, we are a worldwide hub for that. The need for a workforce that is prepared now is absolutely incredible. It’s a big driver of our economy in the region.

We need to be able to keep up with the rate of change. As I work with companies and industry, it just keeps accelerating. Our education partners need to appreciate that. We need to be constantly studying and learning. Then, we need to be measuring what counts, right? To get that right is absolutely critical because we can get pulled off into ancillary conversations that distract us from the outcomes that we need. Ultimately, we have to focus on the quality of life that we’re going to be able to give people if we get them the right tools and the right knowledge. I know you get all that, Van, but this is a great book and thanks for calling all those things out.

Van: Thank you very much, Paul, for just spotlighting a number of those concepts. It’s really important, as Paul said, that it’s really not one-size-fits-all when it comes to regions and economic development. Identifying the respected organizations and respected intermediaries like the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, who can galvanize and facilitate the conversation of the actors within the region, is so important. Again, it’s not something that you can do top-down, because there’s not one thing in every region. They come under different banners. In some areas, it’s called the Chamber of Commerce. In other areas, it has an entirely different name and may be a community non-profit. So, thank you, Paul, for all the work that you do. With that, let me turn over to Linda Wah, a Trustee at Pasadena City College.

Linda Wah: I want to thank you for inviting me. So, like all the other speakers before, I want to give accolades to this book. This is really wonderful. It really brings back my memories of working with you, Van, in the community college system. You’re such a clear thinker and are always able to nail down what the issue is, and then how to tackle it and that’s also what this book was for me, too.

I loved the titling of all your chapters and that you presented the problem, you presented the solutions and then at the end, there were chapter highlights. If anyone’s looking for this book, I think you want to look for something that talks about, of course, the workforce strategies, but also the agility of changing education to meet these fast and rapid moving skills needs from our employers.

I also liked the inclusiveness. Right now in the California Community College System, we’re all very focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion and how we use that lens to look at everything we’re doing. I would note, as others have, the meritocracy that you’ve talked about — the badging and the micro-credentials — but I also loved the chapter on the unconscious bias and leveling the slope. There were a couple of things that really stopped me, because the workforce has always been my passion. It’s something I ran on when I was first running for the Board of Trustees. But as some of you may know, the trustees are often told that we need to stay in our lane, we can’t go into operations, we need to stay with policy. So how do we, as policymakers who are not down in the weeds, look at these things?

Some of the things that you talked about regarding inclusiveness and hiring practices I thought were really important. Right now in the community college system, we’re talking about hiring practices just within the system, you know, to reflect the diversity of those we serve. But then how does education impact our students when they go out in the workforce and how successful they will be?

You had two stories in Chapter Seven which I thought were really interesting. There was a story of people you worked with — a young man, Aleki, and a young woman, Dimitrua. You found both to be really talented, but were surprised when they didn’t make it to the final line when they were doing job interviews. They were bypassed because they hadn’t passed a background check because they had these outstanding unpaid fines, which we know has led to some police issues where people are being pulled over. This really struck me.

By being so thoughtful and asking your team to look at this more closely and to really examine what was happening, you found that we’re bypassing some really talented people because of these minor things that are happening. There are societal norms that we have that maybe some people are not taught, or sometimes, young people just feel like they’re going to dig their heels in and not do something. So, I really love this.

Then you quoted someone you’re working with, Byron Auguste, who is the CEO of Opportunity at Work, and he talked about how we are unconsciously sidelining talent in using degree-based hiring criteria instead of skills-based criteria. And something that we’re talking about is, how do you credit for an experience not just looking at what you’ve taken in the classroom?

I really love the stats that he had. Sixty percent of Americans who are over the age of twenty-five don’t even have bachelor’s degrees. So, if bachelor’s degrees become the criteria by which you’re going to hire people, this is leaving sixty percent of our population out, and of that sixty percent, seventy-six percent of those are African-Americans, eighty-three percent are Latinos and eighty-one percent come from a rural area.

He talked about how we’re bypassing what he calls “STARS” — or those who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes — like community colleges, like military, on-the-job training, and workforce training programs. That really raised my consciousness and I hope it raises others in education to really think about the impact that we are having on our students and what we can do to really make these changes.

Then you talked about these educational upgrades to the new norm. When we were working together, one of the questions I asked is, “Are we going to drive faculty crazy by asking them to keep changing curriculum to meet the needs of industry.?” I think it was Burning Glass who came out and said we have to do these short-term goals to get the students where they need to be. You talk about the short shelf life of skills, this rapid change of technology and innovation that is really driving this need.

It really resonated with me that we, in education, really need to be conscious of that and how we need to really look at the metrics of mastery. So, don’t focus on how much time it takes you to do an examination, or how much time you put into education, but measure whether or not people have the skills and the talent and the knowledge they need to really be successful. Be bold in being collaborative in taking these kinds of risks. Don’t continue to encourage a sort of punitive, rule-based culture that I think we have been in for a while, but really be collaborative and innovative.

So, I love everything you were doing in this book, Van. I do think it’s a “how-to,” and as I’ve heard all those who came before me, I now know I have to go back and reread a lot of these chapters because it’s so rich with information and it’s really something that I think people can carry with them as a how-to manual. So, thank you, Van, for writing this.

Van: Thank you, Linda, for having read it with such attention. I, too, love the story of Aleki who caught a fish when he was fifteen and didn’t pay the ticket that you get when the fish is too small. And then he didn’t show up in court. He’s 15 years old. That became a felony on his record, so when he applied, he was blackballed from employment. He didn’t even know he had a record. Thanks to the partnership, our community partners were able to expunge that, and the company was able to hire him. But thank you for pointing out all these learnings throughout the book that could be of value to someone who is really at the helm, like you, of an institution as a trustee. All right, Gustavo Herrera, CEO of Arts for LA, you have the hardest role! I saved the best for last here, Gustavo!

Gustavo Herrera: (laughs) I’ll try and bring it home. Good morning, Van. Thank you so much for the invitation to be a part of this. All of the colleagues that are here with us are just amazing, amazing leaders. I completely agree with what folks have shared about this being a playbook. If I were thinking about words to look this up, it’s almost like “how to be a game-changer.”

But what I deeply appreciated about this book, Van, is there’s also a lot of personal anecdotes in the book. There was a quote that you shared from your mentor, Bettie Steiger, who said, “You need to give up who you are in order to become who you can be.” And I sat and really thought, you know, there’s a lot of bits and pieces like that, profound words to really meditate on throughout the book. I think, Van, this book is really riddled with those types of profundities, but also the real-world, real-time problem-solving that will help leaders who are trying to drive seismic change.

I also really appreciated and loved the robot-zombie apocalypse podcast…the conversation between Jamie Merisotis, CEO of Lumina Foundation, and yourself. It was a conversation around the future of work and the anxiety around this question of robots taking over human jobs. What I really appreciated as I was reading the book is Jamie’s emphasis on nurturing the foundational human capabilities, and that’s really what prepares people for human work — to focus on preparing people with compassion, empathy, ethics, collaboration, and creativity. Those are the traits and the characteristics that ultimately develop strong leadership over time. I appreciated all that so much.

It reminded me of Simon Sinek’s YouTube video where he says that he hates the term “soft skills” because there’s nothing soft about them. Rather than soft skills, he proposes “human skills,” and all of that was packaged into the book. Now, as a CEO of an arts advocacy organization, I’m constantly thinking about not just how we build a stronger workforce, but also how do we build a more strong and creative workforce to really thrive and build change? So, this book is absolutely incredible. I know I’ll continue to reread the book and pull anecdotes from it. I’m just really grateful for this opportunity to share my reflections on the book, Van. Thank you.

Van: Thank you so much, Gustavo. I’m glad that the comments of my mentors resonated with your personal and career journey as well.

As we wrap up, we would love your help to spread the word about the book. As you saw with the magnitude of the numbers, we need to get these strategies and playbooks out to others so that they can be part of the solution. The book is on a number of best seller and hot new release lists. If you happen to be on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or wherever you bought the book, it’s such a gift to an author to have a review written. It’s very, very easy. If you go down to where the stars are, you can just click “write a customer review,” add a headline, put in one or two sentences, and press submit. It’ll take less than a minute. I would so appreciate it if you could do a review.

I want to thank all my friends and colleagues who joined as panelists today. You’re so terrific, and it was such a wonderful celebration to have you with me today. And thank you to everyone in our audience for joining. Hopefully, you got great wisdom and insights from spending the time with us.